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In memory of Tommy the chimpanzee

By Nonhuman Rights

A little over ten years ago, the Nonhuman Rights Project’s founder, lawyer and legal scholar Steven Wise, visited a used trailer lot along Route 30 in the small town of Gloversville, New York. He was there for one reason: to see the chimpanzee who would soon become the NhRP’s first client.

Inside a small building, locked inside a steel-and-cement cage, Steve found a small adult chimpanzee. Named Tommy by the businessman who compelled him to perform in his entertainment “troupe” when he was young, the chimpanzee was peering out from his prison with what seemed to be curiosity and resigned sadness. One wall of his cage was painted to look like a jungle. Just outside it, a small TV was playing cartoons.

The irony was horrific: this chimpanzee had spent much of his life performing for humans in the entertainment industry, including on a film set where chimpanzees were alleged to have been beaten into submission with blackjacks, clubs, and cattle prods. Now, the people who “owned” him were providing him with human entertainment as if this could ever make up for the loss of his freedom and the company of other chimpanzees. Later, Tommy’s owner even claimed in a media interview that Tommy liked being alone.

The photograph of Tommy taken that day has circulated around the world, and the lawsuit we brought on Tommy’s behalf–the first to demand an actual, enforceable right for a nonhuman animal–has catalyzed a global debate about the irrationality and injustice of denying legal rights to nonhuman animals. Nowhere is the impact of Tommy’s case more evident than in the passionate rejection of Tommy’s rightlessness by a judge on New York’s highest court the second time our arguments came before him:

To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.

Before our litigation concluded, media outlets began to report that Tommy had disappeared from Gloversville. His owner disingenuously claimed in interviews not to remember where he sent him, but private investigations conducted by the NhRP and federal and state records requests showed that Tommy had been moved out of state.

In 2022, we announced we believed Tommy was imprisoned in a roadside zoo in Michigan called the DeYoung Family Zoo. Over 3,000 NhRP supporters answered our call to contact the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) to demand an emergency inspection at the zoo as part of our efforts to secure Tommy’s release to a sanctuary. Behind the scenes, we were preparing new litigation on behalf of Tommy, whose right to liberty we’ve never given up on.

Only a few days ago, in the midst of our final preparations for this case, we were devastated and outraged to learn Tommy has died. USDA records sent to us on Nov. 30th include an exchange between representatives from MDARD and the USDA in response to the emails NhRP supporters sent with their concerns about Tommy. The exchange suggests that Tommy died much as he had lived: alone, vulnerable, with no comfort but what he could offer himself. He had apparently been found dead in February of 2022, “curled up in his sleeping spot” inside a building on the DeYoung Family Zoo property, according to a USDA official.

Tommy’s death shows us how animal welfare fails nonhuman animals—everything that happened to him was legal. This is why nonhuman animals need legal rights, and why we’ve been relentlessly fighting for their rights in court for ten years.

Tommy’s story has already begun to change everything. Today, we’re asking you to donate in memory of Tommy so we can bring justice to nonhuman animals and end the status quo that allowed him to be “donated” to a roadside zoo like he was nothing. He was someone, and his life was a nightmare without end.

We’ll share more soon about Tommy’s legacy and what his story means to the nonhuman animal rights movement. Thank you to our supporters for seeing Tommy and all nonhuman animals for who they are, not what humans can use them for. May courts and legislatures the world over do the same.

To learn more about Tommy and his case, visit his client page.

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